In the dock
The literary prosecution of Robert Bourassa
The Globe and Mail
Saturday July 16, 1994
EARLY on in the marathon reading of this mammoth two-volume account of Robert Bourassa’s tangle with the constitutional debate over two years, I imagined Quebec journalist Jean-Francois Lisee, whom I had once seen soberly and severely dissect Mordecai Richler on television, in lawyer’s robes. These two tomes were his basis for the prosecution of Bourassa: binders, neatly tabbed, of transcripts, accounts by witnesses, reconstructions of meetings. The sheer mass of these two books, the narrowness of their focus, and the first volume’s impact in Quebec are eloquent statements in themselves of the continuing intensity of Quebec’s self-absorption.
Despite its heft and price, the first volume was an immediate bestseller when it was published in April and its controversial thesis prompted a 90-minute television special. The second volume was published a few weeks ago. James Lorimer plans to publish a one-volume abridged version of the books, translated into English by Robert Chodos, in October.
To oversimplify, Lisee calls the former Quebec premier on two charges. First, that the accused did consciously, intentionally and in premeditated fashion, deceive Quebec nationalists after the 1990 collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord into believing that he was about to take advantage of a historic opportunity and lead Quebec to independence. Secondly (and this is the second book), that the accused bungled the negotiations that resulted in the 1992 Charlottetown accord, which Canadians rejected in a national vote.
To make his case in Le Tricheur (The Trickster), Lisee painstakingly reconstructs the debates inside the Allaire Commission, which came close to recommending sovereignty for Quebec, and the Belanger Campeau Commission, which urged a referendum on sovereignty. In doing so, he shows how a significant portion of the most influential elements of the Quebec Liberal Party became converted to the idea that Quebec should become independent. He also demonstrates how many Liberals – and various prominent figures like Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry – became convinced that Bourassa was gradually moving toward a historic change of position.
Then, with a flourish, he shows that Bourassa had made it clear to the other premiers that he wanted Quebec to remain in Canada. Lisee writes that « the Quebecker charged with renegotiating, for his State and for his people, a new contract with his neighbours, secretly informed the opposing adversaries from the beginning that he would in no situation use the power that he had been given. » This is comparable, he suggests, to a union leader telling the company that he will not tell his members to go on strike, regardless of the offers ‚ or the Canadian free- trade negotiators telling the Americans they would sign any agreement. He goes on to compare this behaviour with the Iran-Contra scandal, Watergate and the Greenpeace affair in France. This charge assumes, as Lisee does, that Quebec premiers are in an adversarial relationship, not only with the federal government but with the other premiers. It is inconceivable to him that Bourassa could see his fellow premiers as partners, even as friends, in a collaborative effort. The book becomes a lengthy debate on political morality.
To what extent is a political leader morally obliged to make his true intentions known? There is no question that Lisee is meticulous in tracking Bourassa in his evasions, his duplicities, his suggestive ambivalence, his careful flirtations with the nationalist volcano that erupted in Quebec after the death of the Meech Lake accord. He carefully lists his commitments – and when they were broken. But Bourassa’s goal was to buy time, and he succeeded. Mackenzie King was equally skilled in manoeuvring his way through the Conscription Crisis; Franklin Delano Roosevelt used a similar kind of evasive deception in preparing Americans to join a war they did not want to fight.
What lifts the book above being merely an accusation of betrayal is the depth of detail and the quality of its documentation. Anyone who wants to understand the nationalist surge in the Quebec Liberal Party in 1990-91 and the sudden falling of the floodwaters in 1992 will have to wrestle with the testimony that Lisee has accumulated.
The second volume, Le Naufrageur (The Wrecker) is more convincing. It is hard to argue that there was anything successful about Quebec’s negotiating strategy in the constitutional talks in 1992, and Lisee is devastating in laying out its flaws. He quotes Louis Bernard, who advised both Rene Levesque and Robert Bourassa, as saying that there are two possible approaches to negotiating constitutional change. Bourassa could have stated clear objectives and got intensely involved from the beginning – or stayed removed, waited for offers, evaluated them and held a referendum. Instead, he took the worst of both approaches: stayed detatched in the crucial stages, sending contradictory messages, and got involved too late.
Lisee also reveals an enormous amount about the emotional dynamic that drives the Quebec Liberal Party, which is so different from that of the Parti Quebecois: less ideological, more pragmatic, more focused on loyalty to the leader rather than loyalty to an idea. One irritating flaw in the book comes from the fact that tape recorders can’t spell. Thus, Canada’s top military officer John de Chastelain becomes Jean de Chastelain; Quebec liberal Francoy Roberge becomes Francois Roberge; Montreal lawyer Eric Maldoff becomes Eric Malduff; Ontario official Stephen Bornstein becomes Steven Brownstein; Alberta official Bill Gadja becomes Bill Gatha twice and Bill Ghata once. The tape recorder also stumbled over Don Mazankowski, Rosemarie Kuptana, and Tony Penikett. It is a small matter, perhaps, but annoying.
To an admiral degree, Lisee separates his analysis from his reporting. This gives his book its greatest value: One can argue with his interpretation of events, but the sheer intensity of reportage is extraordinary, and there are times when the narrative is gripping. If the most reasonable objective for a journalist, in terms of fairness, is to report a sufficient amount of information that the reader can draw a different conclusion from the writer, Lisee usually succeeds.
But occasionally, his framework betrays him. Thus, Alliance-Quebec, which works for the protection of English-language rights and argued in 1985 that Bourassa would have to do more to protect French in order to be able to keep his election promise to remove the restrictions on the language of signs, is described as being « entirely dedicated to dismantling the Quebec structure of the protection of French, as Cato the Elder wanted to destroy Carthage. » Excuse me? It is inevitable that such a voluminous work with such a limited focus have self-indulgences.
At times, there is something of lapel-grabbing harangue in Lisee’s documentaire-fleuve: transcripts of interviews where he argues with sources, and with Bourassa; painstaking reconstructions of meetings whose importance now seems limited; digressions and repetitions. The fact that the second volume was published a few months after the first means that Lisee is able to argue with his critics, and lament the moral limitations in those who did not join him in his outrage at Bourassa’s manipulations.
But its very excesses, its extraordinary detail, its post-modern insistence on presenting the author as well as the subject, are part of the book’s tour de force. There is an endearing candour, an undisguised passion, a rigourous curiosity, a relentless intensity, a driving obsession in these two books. The result, while sometimes exasperating, is extraordinarily revealing: both of Robert Bourassa, and the society he tried to govern.
Graham Fraser is Washington Bureau Chief, and author of PQ: Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois in Power.